At their July 8 meeting, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agreed to strengthen cooperation to settle the North Korean nuclear and missile issue. The meeting, the second in the last month to be held in this format, followed Mike Pompeo’s two-day visit to North Korea, the first such visit after the historic meeting between President Donald Trump and DPRK Leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12.
Secretary Pompeo was supposed to coordinate the implementation of the agreements reached by the two leaders and, as he reported, North Korea confirmed its willingness to denuclearize, agreed to hold a meeting on repatriating the remains of US Korean War victims, and reaffirmed its determination to scrap its missile engine testing range. The sides have also formed groups for talks at the working level. But the visit has brought no specific results on denuclearization, specifically no implementation timeframe, even though Pompeo described it as “productive.” Moreover, the DPRK Foreign Ministry has sown additional doubts by calling the US position deplorable right after Secretary Pompeo took off, arguing that he unilaterally insisted on full denuclearization. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) compared his behavior with that of a gangster. At the same time, KCNA expressed hope for the implementation of the Singapore agreements. Nevertheless, the three foreign ministers gave a positive assessment to the DPRK-US talks. In response to the DPRK comments, Pompeo urged North Korea to emulate Vietnam in achieving economic growth and cooperation with the US despite the war and decades of strained relations.
A key aim of the tripartite meeting was to coordinate the three countries’ position on North Korean denuclearization. It was important for the allies, particularly for Japan, to get US confirmation on its commitment to complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) given that the Singapore Declaration contained a vaguely-worded clause on North Korea’s commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The lack of any mention of CVID has caused concerns in Japan. A vague commitment could mean that denuclearization would be incomplete or unverifiable, with North Korea being thus enabled to hide part of its nuclear arsenal, deceive the international community and “take advantage” of planned economic assistance without implementing complete denuclearization in exchange. In addition, Pompeo used a slightly different formula – final, fully verified denuclearization – which further muddled things. The important thing for Japan is the implementation of all the three conditions for denuclearization and knowing that the US is still committed to this goal. Secretary Pompeo sought to dispel their doubts and assured them that both formulas were identical.
Following their talks, the three foreign ministers agreed that whatever the words, North Korea’s denuclearization could only be absolute, implying the full elimination of nuclear weapons. The three also agreed that no sanctions would be lifted until North Korea fully denuclearized. Taro Kono said that the three countries confirmed their intentions to guarantee the safety of the North Korean regime, but for that the DPRK needs to carry out CVID and eliminate its ballistic missiles regardless of their range (the medium and shorter-range missiles are of particular importance to Seoul and Tokyo). This represented the coordinated position of the three countries: the US and its Asian allies.
It is important for all three countries to see progress on North Korean denuclearization, including a specific schedule. US-DPRK agreements underlie any settlement on the Korean Peninsula. But it is still unclear whether the two nations can come to terms on a roadmap and the timeframe to implement the Singapore agreements. The United States insists on denuclearization as a precondition for further moves, including the lifting of sanctions. North Korea, for its part, is proposing a step-by-step approach, where one action will be undertaken in response to another action. The US may realize the need for a reciprocal, step-by-step approach, but it believes it is North Korea that should take the first step by providing full information on its nuclear program and the state of its missile forces. At the same time, The Washington Post reported that the US intelligence community has come to the conclusion that the DPRK has no intention to disclose the real data on the state of its missile and nuclear program and has, on the contrary, stepped up uranium enrichment. This report could be used as part of a strategy for pressure lest North Korea is tempted to conceal some of its missile and nuclear potential. In fact, most of the US elite are against talks with North Korea as an allegedly untrustworthy counterpart. The US expert community has a largely negative and highly skeptical view of Donald Trump’s policy, noting that North Korea has persuaded Trump to suspend military exercises and is insisting on its standard demands, including the lifting of sanctions and the provision of security guarantees, while doing nothing to denuclearize.
Japan and South Korea have received important US confirmations on the inviolability of security guarantees under their bilateral alliance treaties. It was a shock for both Seoul and Tokyo that President Trump announced a suspension of military exercises with the Republic of Korea at a news conference following the Singapore summit without previously having coordinated it with the allies. Japan as a whole and South Korean conservatives believe that the suspension of exercises will affect the security situation on the Korean Peninsula. Japan is of the opinion that the likely US pullout from South Korea (mentioned by President Trump) will be bad for both its own security and that of the region as a whole.
Japan is the most pessimistic of the parties involved with regard to the real chances for North Korean denuclearization, with 83% of respondents in opinion polls holding a dim view of North Korea’s denuclearization any time soon. Moreover, it is aware that together with South Korea it will have to provide the bulk of economic aid to North Korea if it does after all denuclearize. Tokyo emphasizes the need for developing a strict denuclearization timeframe and a plan to the same effect. In its view, North Korea should also provide truthful and full information on its missile and nuclear program. These problems are of no small importance in the context of Prime Minister Abe’s policy to revise Japan’s national security strategy (implying increases in defense spending, purchase of advanced armaments, etc.), a policy justified by the North Korean nuclear threat. Moves designed to convince the public that the country is faced with a serious North Korean threat (evacuation drills for the possibility of a North Korean missile attack, the sounding of alarm signals as a warning of North Korean missile launches, etc.) have helped the Liberal Democratic Party win the snap election in October 2017. In fact, Japan is facing a dilemma as to whether solving the problem of abducted citizens should be held up as a precondition for normalizing the dialogue with North Korea or whether to radically revise its policy in line with the US. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for whom the issue of abducted citizens is a key plank of his foreign policy portfolio, has sought to convince the US to put it on the DPRK agenda. Of real importance for Japan is a bilateral meeting between Shinzo Abe and Kim Jong-un, which would prevent Japan from being sidelined in the process of talks. A personal meeting with the North Korean leader would also afford a good opportunity for Mr. Abe to broach the matter.
Japan regards the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September 2018 as a key opportunity for arranging a meeting with Kim Jong-un, who has been invited by President Vladimir Putin to attend the event. Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe and President of the Republic of Korea Moon Jae-in are also planning to attend. Russia could act as a mediator by providing a venue for bilateral and multilateral dialogue. Japan believes that Russia could play a positive role in this case by dealing with security problems on the Korean Peninsula. It is expected that cooperation related to the Korean Peninsula will figure importantly at the third 2+2 meeting of Russian and Japanese foreign and defense ministers to be held in late July. Focusing on the abductee problem will certainly limit Japan’s room to maneuver. North Korea, which sees this issue as closed, may refuse to discuss it again and thus deprive Japan, far from the friendliest of partners, of an opportunity to join the negotiations in principle. Interestingly, apart from discussing North Korea’s stepped denuclearization, the Japanese expert community believes that the abductee problem should also be addressed on a step-by-step basis (action in exchange for action: lifting sanctions, establishing contacts, providing economic aid in exchange for returning Japanese citizens, and later providing verifiable information on those who died and their remains).  An alternative option is normalizing relations with the DPRK as the first step and talking about the abductees later.
Thus, making progress towards the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and a settlement of security issues seems a highly complicated affair. Given the apparent commonality of the positions of the United States and its Asian allies, differences remain. Moon Jae-in (and his many supporters) remains committed to step-by-step improvements in relations with North Korea. The American president and his administration demonstrate cautious optimism, but most of the elite in the US do not support the Trump administration’s policy.
With the US mid-term elections scheduled for November, it is of importance for the president to show progress on Korea. The Korean conservatives are also skeptical of achieving a settlement but they are now in the minority. Japan is very pessimistic with regard to actual North Korean denuclearization and its renunciation of the missile program. Nevertheless, despite certain differences, the three nations’ foreign ministers managed to demonstrate a high degree of proximity of positions at their meeting in Tokyo. Prospectively, this coordination will be of much importance for settling the security issues on the Korean Peninsula. A significant signal for North Korea will be whether the US and South Korea start preparations for the 2019 military exercises next fall or if they will keep the suspension in place.
Beijing’s position plays an important role as well, including the resumption of North Korean-Chinese ties following three meetings between the Chinese and North Korean leaders and the actual relaxation of sanctions. Russia may have an opportunity for direct talks between its leaders and North Korea and for providing a venue for contacts between the stakeholders. If successful, Russia would be seen as a key player in dealing with the security issues on the Korean Peninsula. It remains to persuade the Northeast Asian leaders, particularly Kim Jong-un, to attend the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September.